We are happy, so we smile, and we smile, so we are therefore happy? Is this the case though? Well, it’s an interesting one, because we all know that when we’re happy and having a good time, we break out into a smile – hopefully even a laugh, and it’s infectious! Smiling is a natural emotional response to a situation or stimulus that makes our brain recognise happiness, therefore responding by producing endorphins, or ‘happy hormones’ – transmitting signals to your fascial muscles to bring them into that all-important smile. So if we turn this concept on its head, does this mean we can fake the feeling of happiness even if the smile is staged?
The Science Behind The Smile
I am no scientist, but research has shown that the physical mechanism of smiling, ie. the actual movement of the fascial muscles into the shape with which we associate smiling, and therefore happiness, can actually trigger a happy feeling by sending feedback to the brain that we are indeed smiling. The brain then reacts by releasing endorphins to trigger an emotional response to this physical movement, which completes the happiness-response loop. So we can almost fake ourselves into feeling happy! Doesn’t sound too bad at all does it? (This is a very simplified version of what actually goes on, but you get the gist).
So What About These ‘Happy Hormones’?
Most of us know about endorphins – the so called ‘happy hormones’ that are produced as a result of exercise, leaving us with that somewhat euphoric, natural high. These neurochemicals are produced in the brain when the body comes under stress or a certain level of pain – the level of stress we can attribute to an intensive workout, and they work to counteract this pain or stress by minimising the sensation of discomfort, essentially by telling the brain that we are doing OK by sending messages to various receptors. It’s all part of the happiness-response loop mentioned earlier, and the whole mind body connection. It gets pretty technical, but we don’t have to be scientists to know that the release of these chemicals (whatever they may be) feels pretty damn good, and it’s why so many of us seek that natural rush through exercise – it’s certainly not the worst addiction to have.
But What Else Is At Play?
Well, research has shown that it’s not all about the endorphins after all – there’s also serotonin and norepinephrine to consider, which are neurotransmitters linked to mood balance. A decreased level or deficit of these chemicals in the body has been linked to symptoms of anxiety, mood swings, and depression. So it all makes sense really – we work out, release doses of serotonin and norepinephrine which have a positive effect on our mood, and voila, we feel awesome as a result. (Again, very simplified). It’s all about balancing everything out, regulating the body’s temperament through natural changes which when made physically, will also have a physiological and an emotional response.
Where Sport Comes In
So there’s clearly a lot of biology at play here, which is why it’s so important to listen to your body, particularly when it comes to fitness – you want to push yourself, but you should know your limits and be in tune with your body so that you get the best out of it and therefore feel great as a result.
Understanding the biology helps us to figure out trigger points and how to treat them. For example, we’ve all had one of those days at the office which leaves us stressed out, mentally exhausted and a little down in the dumps, and many of us hit the gym straight after in a bid to de-stress. The resultant increase in aforementioned ‘happy’ chemicals not only helps to alleviate those signs of stress and depression at that point in time, but shows that there are longer term benefits to regular exercise. It can train our bodies to combat stressors more generally, by practicing this stress-response, and in turn practicing the happiness-response loop, giving us that natural high and feeling of well-being.
On the flip side, the less active we are, the less practice our bodies get at dealing with those stressful days at the office, or those frustrating journeys stuck in gridlock traffic on your way home from work – ultimately making them seem a whole lot worse than they actually are. And this brings us back to the smile effect; when you find yourself in one of those situations, try smiling to bring that happiness-response loop into play, and see if that helps to alleviate the situation a little. Then as planned, hit the gym at the end of the day and get your dose of all of the above. 🙂
How Sport Affects Daily Life
1. Higher energy levels. Not only will sport boost your mood, it will also make you feel energised, so you will be far more productive with your time, and probably much more efficient too.
2. Lightened mood. The release of serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and probably many other chemicals gives you that feel-good factor, as your brain sends signals to your body to say that you are doing something that is good for you and that you should enjoy it!
3. Less stress, less anxiety. It doesn’t take long to shake off a hard day when your mind and body are consumed by exercise – even if it’s fairly moderate, it’s a brilliant mechanism for dealing with and shaking off stress, anxiety and depression. I am not saying it’s an immediate cure for serious cases, but it’s an important practice to take up in order to stave off symptoms in the long run.
4. More mentally resilient. By pushing your body physically, you are pushing yourself mentally too, and once you see how much you can achieve through sport and fitness, you will in turn become mentally tougher. It’s all about the personal challenge in sport, and seeing how far you can push yourself – and feeling the positive benefits, the feel-good factor, and that sweet reward at the end of a workout.
5. Maintaining a healthy body. It’s not all about weight, but it is about health, and we all have our healthy weight bracket, depending on height, age, lifestyle etc, and we should aspire to maintain it. We will be physically healthier, and mentally healthier too – staying fit and active to go about daily tasks, routines – and feeling generally fit enough to get involved in whatever life throws your way.
So there you have it – a smile can go a long way, particularly when it comes to maintaining your health (and your friends), and doing things that make you smile, make you happy, will have endless benefits on the body, and brain. Sport is a great way to achieve that natural rush, that natural state of happy, so find a workout that works for you – one that doesn’t feel like hard work, and is just a lot of fun to do!